An economic way to fight climate change?

George Washington University Professor Stuart Licht is taking a new approach to combating climate change. Reporter Andrea Vasquez spoke with Licht about his STEP process, a system that pulls greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and converts them into usable products.

TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

IN THE GLOBAL FIGHT AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE, FINDING ALTERNATIVE ENERGY SOURCES REMAINS A CHALLENGE.

GREATER STILL IS FINDING OPTIONS THAT ARE ECONOMICAL.

BUT PERHAPS PROFESSOR STUART LICHT OF GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IS ON TO SOMETHING.

UP NEXT, LICHT JOINS US TO DISCUSS HIS NEW SYSTEM THAT PULLS GREENHOUSE GASSES FROM THE ATMOSPHERE AND CONVERTS THEM INTO VALUABLE PRODUCTS.

REPORTER ANDREA VASQUEZ HAS THE INTERVIEW VIA GOOGLE HANGOUT.

AND STUART LICHT, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

CAN YOU TELL ME WHAT ARE SOME OF THE WAYS TO CAPTURE CARBON FROM THE ATMOSPHERE?

WE'RE STILL LEARNING A LOT ABOUT HOW TO CAPTURE CARBON DIOXIDE FROM THE ATMOSPHERE.

MANY OF THE ATTEMPTS THAT HAVE BEEN TRIED DON'T SEEM TO, UH, MAKE ECONOMIC SENSE OR... AND THEY HAVEN'T BEEN VERY SUCCESSFUL.

UH, PEOPLE HAVE TRIED TO BLOW CO2 BACK INTO THE EARTH WITH OR WITHOUT WATER OR BUBBLE IT INTO THE OCEANS, UM, NEITHER OF WHICH LOOKS TOO MUCH, TOO PROMISING AT THIS POINT ECONOMICALLY.

THEY'RE TRYING TO EXTRACT IT FROM SOME INDUSTRIAL PROCESSES BEFORE IT BLEEDS INTO THE ATMOSPHERE, CONCENTRATING IT FIRST.

UH, AND AGAIN, THESE PROCESSES TODAY HAVEN'T BEEN VERY PROMISING.

WE'RE TAKING A VERY DIFFERENT APPROACH.

SO TELL ME ABOUT YOUR PROCESS, THE STEP PROCESS, AND HOW THAT WORKS.

THE STEP PROCESS CAN REMOVE CARBON DIOXIDE DIRECTLY FROM THE ATMOSPHERE.

IT CAN ALSO REMOVE IT FROM INDUSTRIAL SMOKESTACKS.

AND IT'S A DIFFERENT APPROACH.

IT TAKES A NEW CHEMISTRY.

BUT WHAT WE DO IS, WE USE SUNLIGHT, SOLAR ENERGY.

THE FULL SOLAR SPECTRUM, AND WE APPLY IT TO BUBBLING THE CO2, FULL OF BIG AIR, INTO A CHAMBER CALLED AN ELECTROLYSIS CHAMBER.

WE BUBBLE IT IN THERE AND WE TRANSFORM THE CO2.

WE DON'T TRY TO REALLY JUST CAPTURE IT.

WE TRANSFORM IT TO SOMETHING USEFUL, A VALUABLE PRODUCT.

WE ADD SOME ELECTRICITY, AND THAT TRANSFORMS IT INTO SOMETHING CALLED CARBON NANOFIBERS.

CARBON NANOFIBERS ARE VERY STABLE, SUPER STRONG MATERIAL WITH VERY, VERY, UH, EXCITING USES.

THE IDEA OF MAKING A VALUABLE PRODUCT OUT OF THIS, UH, GREENHOUSE GAS IS VERY EXCITING.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PRODUCTS THAT YOU CAN MAKE FROM CARBON NANOFIBERS?

CARBON NANOFIBERS HAVE, UH, TRULY ASTOUNDING PROPERTIES.

THEY'RE MUCH STRONGER THAN STEEL.

THEY HAVE VERY HIGH ELECTRICAL CONDUCTIVITY, THERMAL CONDUCTIVITY.

THEY'RE BEING USED FOR THE COMPOSITES IN THE WIND TURBINES FOR RENEWABLE ENERGY.

UH, WE KNOW THEM IN LIGHTWEIGHT SPORTS EQUIPMENT.

UH, BECAUSE WE MAKE THE CARBON COMPOSITES, THEY'RE VERY, VERY LIGHTWEIGHT, BUT STRONG AND FLEXIBLE MATERIAL.

OKAY.

WE USE THEM IN THE BOEING DREAMLINER NOW.

SO INSTEAD OF HAVING A HEAVIER METAL, THEY CAN MAKE MUCH LIGHTER WEIGHT PLANES.

THEY'RE MUCH STRONGER, UH, WHICH CAN GO FURTHER BECAUSE THEY DON'T WEIGH AS MUCH.

UH, FINALLY, ONE FANTASTIC APPLICATION IS A WHOLE NEW MATERIAL FOR BATTERIES.

SO THEY'RE HOPING THAT THE NEXT GENERATION OF BATTERIES FOR CARS AND FOR VEHICLES CAN HOLD MUCH MORE ENERGY THAT WILL BE BASED ON CARBON NANOFIBERS.

AND HOW ARE WE GETTING CARBON NANOFIBERS OR CREATING THEM NOW?

THAT'S THE ONE, UM, DIFFICULTY RIGHT NOW.

THEY'RE SO EXPENSIVE.

UH, CARBON NANOFIBERS ARE MADE BY ONE OF TWO PROCESSES.

ONE, THEY SORT OF PULL IT STRAND BY STRAND, A POLYMER PLASTIC AND THEN THEY BURN OFF ALL THE NON CARBON NANOFIBER MATERIAL.

END UP WITH A STRAND OF IT.

AND THEN THEY WEAVE THESE STRAND BY STRAND TO TRY TO BUILD UP A CARBON NANOFIBER CLOTH.

UH, THE OTHER METHOD IS EQUALLY, UH, EXPENSIVE.

FANCY CHEMICAL TERM CALLED CHEMICAL VAPOR DEPOSITION.

UNDER THIS PROCESS, THEY CAN SLOWLY GROW CARBON NANOFIBERS.

AGAIN, VERY ENERGY-INTENSIVE.

UM, VERY, VERY EXPENSIVE.

AND ANOTHER BIG ISSUE IS ALWAYS SCALING UP TO MEET THE DEMAND, WHICH IS HUGE.

CAN YOUR STEP PROCESS BE SCALED UP TO MEET THE DEMAND?

SIMPLY, YOU TAKE THIS MOLTEN LIQUID, THIS LIQUID.

AND YOU PUT TWO ELECTRODES IN IT.

THEY'RE INEXPENSIVE ELECTRODES.

ONE'S MADE OUT OF STEEL.

ONE'S MADE OUT OF NICKEL.

YOU APPLY SOME ELECTRICITY UNDER THE RIGHT CONDITIONS WITH THE RIGHT, UH, LIQUID IN THERE.

CO2 BEAUTIFULLY DISSOLVES IN THERE AND WE GROW THESE CARBON NANOFIBERS.

WHEN WE SCALE THAT UP IN THE LAB MORE THAN 100 TIMES, THERE'S NO CHANGE.

SO WE THINK WE CAN SCALE UP TO A LARGE SYSTEMS VERY EASILY.

THE OTHER QUESTION ON THE OTHER SIDE IS DO WE NEED ALL THESE CARBON NANOFIBERS?

DO WE NEED ENOUGH OF THEM SO THAT WE CAN ACTUALLY, UH, AFFECT THE AMOUNT OF -- THE CONCENTRATION OF CARBON DIOXIDE IN THE ATMOSPHERE.

WILL WE HAVE ENOUGH TO DO WITH IT ALL?

WE'RE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE CARBON NANOFIBER REVOLUTION.

WE'RE SORT OF WHERE PLASTICS WERE AT THE BEGINNING OF WORLD WAR II WHERE THERE'S THESE WONDERFUL NEW MATERIALS.

THEY'RE STILL A LITTLE BIT EXPENSIVE.

WHEN THE PRICE CAME DOWN, THEIR USES TOOK OFF.

AND TODAY, WE CONSUME SEVERAL POUNDS OF PLASTICS PER PERSON, PER DAY.

UM, IF YOU CAN IMAGINE A TRANSITION WHERE WE START REALLY USING THESE MATERIALS.

INSTEAD OF HAVING THE STEEL CORDS IN CEMENT BEAMS WHICH THEY BUILD WITH -- IF WE REPLACE THOSE STEEL CORDS WITH CARBON NANOFIBERS, THAT'S A BIG USE OF THEM.

IF WE CAN USE THEM AS BUILDING MATERIALS.

IF WE CAN USE THEM IN ALL THESE OTHER APPLICATIONS, PRETTY SOON THERE'S A POSSIBILITY WE COULD SEE A FEW POUNDS PER YEAR, PER PERSON.

AT THAT POINT, WE'RE REALLY CUTTING INTO THE CO2 IN THE AIR.

I APPRECIATE YOU JOINING US.

OKAY, THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HOW SCIENTISTS ARE WORKING TO COMBAT CLIMATE CHANGE, FOLLOW OUR BLOG AT scitechnow.org.

AND scitechnow.tumblr.com.